Freshly-Minted WSL Champ John John Florence Talks About Winning It All

In case you couldn’t tell, the guy in the image above is good at surfing. In fact, at this precise moment, by the only metric that matters, he’s the best surfer alive. That’s John John Florence, a 24-year-old phenom who just brought the world title back to Hawaii for the first time since Andy Irons won in 2004 (in surfing, Hawaii is essentially treated as an autonomous nation).

Florence’s championship was sealed during the semifinals at the MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal. Between celebrations, the superstar also went out and won the title. Now, he gets to fly home to Hawaii for Pipe Masters, already the champ, and compete in front of hometown fans, surfing breaks he knows down to the most minute detail, with no pressure to perform. It’s a dream scenario for a young man who’s absolutely beloved across the surf industry.

Last year, when we put together an oral history covering Florence’s famous 2014 heat in Tahiti versus Kelly Slater, WSL officials, surf journalists, and Slater himself raved about Florence’s preternatural sense of calm. “I don’t know if his heartbeat ever gets above 50,” retired-pro Ross Williams told us then. “He’s really mellow. He’s not fidgety, he’s not that kind of athlete that might over-froth and get too excited. He just really buckles down when the waves get crazy.”

The legendary Tahiti heat ended with Slater on top, but there was a sense that it had sparked something in John John — a commitment to the rigors of competitive surfing that he hadn’t fully revealed before. The general feeling around the surf world seemed to be, “This kid can do anything, he just needs to decide what he wants to do next.” Well, after finishing his absolutely stunning and widely acclaimed surf movie, View From A Blue Moon, which…Okay, listen, we’re going to drop the trailer in because —

Yes, that’s John C. Reilly narrating. The man knows how to pick a project.

Anyway, after VFABM wrapped and launched, Florence seemed to approach the WSL season with a renewed focus. Not just the “in the water” bit, but the other parts — rehab, training, bard selection, etc. He revealed a competitive edge that was every bit as sharp as his bottom turns. In winning, he smashed one of the biggest examples of cognitive dissonance in modern sports: Every pro surfer alive knew John John was the best, but he didn’t have the title to prove it.

We spoke to him this morning, while the champagne was still flowing in Portugal.

Looking back at the year, was there a change that you fell as far as the competitive mindset shift?

I’d say it kind of happened at the end of last year. I’d finished my movie and I felt like, “Now I want to put all my focus into competing and see how I can better myself in that way. At the last couple of events, I got to start to change things. Then, coming into this year, I got to work on different elements within my surfing and within my mindset too. Just bettering myself as a person, as a competitor, and as a surfer overall.

There are so many things that I want to do with my life and winning a world title has always been one of them. I also always wanted to make a movie, so that was really cool to get to travel around and film all these amazing places. Once I did that I felt like I could move onto the next thing and turn my focus to trying to win a title.

On some level, that must have been nice.

It was almost like a vacation — not a vacation, because it wasn’t easy; it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I wasn’t doing contests then stressing about movie trips in-between. Instead, I was doing contests, going home, having the chance to rest and train and dial in my boards. So that was really fun, that side of things.

And good on you for being able to live out all of these dreams in turn.

I’m still can’t really believe it happened. Being able to make a movie last year, then win the title last year, it’s pretty crazy, just getting the chance to make my dreams come true.

I’ve never met a guy who so many other surfers feel so excited about and your personality comes up time and time again. Have you been able to stay yourself in this whole whirlwind?

I think I’ve been able to stay myself in a lot of different ways…except when the heat starts. I think when the heat starts, I’ve grown more competitive, in a way. There are so many little mindsets and techniques that you can bring into the heat. In that sense, I’ve changed for sure. But in my personal life, I feel like I’m the same person. I think when you’re having fun, you don’t really change negatively as a person.

Does being the first Hawaiian to win since Andy Irons have significance for you? How’s it feel to bring the title back home so to speak?

It’s amazing. Andy was the last one to win the world title and he’s the guy that so many people my age and younger grew up looking at — watching him battle Kelly. So to be the first one since him to win from Hawaii… I don’t think it’s even really sunk in.

Can you walk me through the feelings when you realize that this had actually happened?

I knew that there was a possibility for me to win it in Portugal, but I tried not to think about it. I wanted to stay focused and winning heats, because once you start getting hopes up, you kind of let your guard down.

Did it kind of hit you emotionally — this thing you’d been working for? Was there a wave of emotion?

When it happened, I was in this mindset of “I’m going to the next heat.” I wasn’t entirely opened up to the fact that I’d won. So I was stuck between emotions of staying serious and just letting emotions fly. Then, I had a couple of moments where I cried a little bit — just so happy and grateful… just to get to live my dream.

Now you have the best thing in the world: You’re going home with the title in hand, with no pressure, finishing the season at Pipe with a chance to surf in front of the home crowd. What’s your mentality, headed into that?

I surfed the final here in Portugal without the pressure of the title and it was one of the coolest things ever. I was just like, “I’m gonna do airs or I’m going to try this…” It ended up working in my favor and I won, so I’ll be taking that to Hawaii too. I get to surf my favorite wave with no one out and I get to have no pressure… I can just go chase barrels.